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Emperor Aurelian

Lucius Domitius Aurelianus ‘restitutor orbis ‘ [214/5-275 AD]

Earlier life and military career

Aurelian, born in 214-215, although little is known of his early life, what is known is that he was a son to a modest family in the province of Moesia, his father being a colonus (tenant farmer) to a senator, near the Danube. It would be Aurelian who would rise through the ranks on the banks of the Danube and would become an officer in the army through conflicts on the frontier.

Near the beginning of the Crisis of the Third Century Aurelian would serve as a member of emperor Gallienus’ entourage as a leader of cavalry, fighting in the battle of Naissus, near the Danube (modern day Niš, Serbia), against the Goths. Following this Aurelian would follow Gallienus to northern Italy to handle an attempt of usurpation by Aureolus, which would lead to a small campaign including a battle near the river Adda, and a siege of the city Mediolanum. (Modern day Milan, Italy)

However, it would be at Mediolanum that Aurelian would join a conspiracy against the emperor Gallienus, and would even be credited for the plan of assassination. That being the raising of a false alarm to trick the emperor into running outside. After this, despite being a serious contender for the throne, it would be Claudius who would become emperor of Rome. This was possibly due to the reputation Aurelian had gained as a strict disciplinarian, yet nearly instantaneously after Claudius’ ascension Aurelian would become the ‘dux equitem‘, commander of the cavalry or master of horse.

During the reign of Claudius, Aurelian would once again serve on the Danube frontier against various barbarian invaders. This however was cut short after 18 months, with the succumbing of the emperor Claudius to the plague, and the imperial throne, once again dodged Aurelian and instead went to his brother Quintillus. This however would not do for Aurelian, who would be proclaimed Emperor by his troops.

Emperor

Stating that Claudius had said he was to be his successor rather than Quintillus, Aurelian would put himself in Rome’s Balkan territories, where he would seize the imperial mint in Sisica (modern day Croatia) in order to guarantee the loyalty of his troops. (This is something many emperors did before Aurelian, and was a reason for the Crisis of the Third Century even happening at all) Following this, Aurelian would turn his attention to the barbarians who had attacked from across the Danube, this being the Vandals and Juthungi. The latter having just finished raiding northern Italy and was returning back to their home territory, the amount of plunder and loot held by these raiders allowed for Aurelian to quickly catch up with the withdrawing army. According to the historian Dexippus, after Aurelian had caught up with them, the army would give 120,000 troops to serve under him.

Following this, in 271 AD, Aurelian moved east to Pannonia, to deal with the raiding Vandals that were present there. Yet instead of fighting them head on, Aurelian began a scorched earth campaign around the barbarian forces. Eventually they would surrender to Aurelian, promising him the service of 2,000 warriors in return for food, so that they’d be able to return home without starving.

Rome

Aurelian would march on the Eternal City, where he would have to rapidly deal with an uprising of the Imperial Mint. Despite the direct cause of the revolt being the cause of debate, it’s possible that it was a mixture of growing over confidence and corruption from the mint, clashing with Aurelian’s famous disciplinarian nature, likely made them fear for their privileges. Whatever the case, the revolt was quickly repressed before the mint was shut down.

With regards to maintaining the people’s support, Aurelian would use populism to his benefit, cancelling the people’s debt and making setting alight the relevant records in a public bonfire. Yet apparently emperor Aurelian would be privy to a populist strain, heavily taxing the rich.

Yet despite all this, and the senate’s cautious view of the self proclaimed emperor, the senate would give their approval to the soldier.

After this however, Aurelian realised that there were still troublesome barbarians opposing him. The Juthungi had betrayed their previous surrender and were once again raiding Italy. Aurelian would move to challenge the Juthungi at the battle of Placentia, in 271, yet would take a decisive defeat. This would spur panic and encourage the dissidents against Aurelian to rise up due to nothing being between the barbarians and Rome. Despite this however, Aurelian would put down these revolts, before pushing forward against them once more, defeating them at the battle of Fano.

Despite this victory Aurelian knew that these victories were temporary, and had to somehow placate the population’s fear, while also handling the legitimate threat the barbarians posed. To deal with this, Aurelian would begin the construction of the Aurelian Wall to handle both the population and protect from outside threats.

Aurelian Walls in Rome (source: commons.wikimedia.org)

This would be followed by yet another campaign in the Balkans against the Goths, who would have their leader killed. This campaign would make Aurelian realise that the Dacian province(parts of modern day Romania) were to expensive to maintain, and as such ordered their abandonment. This would be accompanied by more usurpers rising up and trying to make themselves emperor, yet nothing really came of these.

Instead Aurelian would turn his attention outward, towards the states that had seceded from the Roman Empire, the Gallic Empire, and Palmyra.

Palmyra’s breaking off from Rome had stripped much of the east from its control, lead by the queen Zenobia, the threat it posed amplified due to its control of Egypt, the long-time bread supply of Rome, and whoever controlled those lands could threaten Rome in its time of weakness. This would not do for Aurelian, who in 272 would invade Palmyra, punching through Asia Minor easily, before coming upon Tyana in 273. A city which, despite refusing to surrender, was not sacked after the successful siege. This encouraged many other cities to bow their heads down to Aurelian when he arrived at their gates.

Aurelian would then fight two major battles against Palmyra, fighting at the battle of Immae, near Antioch, defeating the main Palrymeme army, before moving onto the battle of Emesa, which would bring the surrender of the city of Palmyra 6 months after Tyana. Zenobia would attempt to escape to the Sassanids, but would be captured by Roman forces.

Despite the victory, Palmyra would revolt once more, a revolt which would be crushed, and would lead to a sharp decline in the city of Palmyra’s strength and influence over the region.

With the east secure, Aurelian would turn his attention west, to the Gallic Empire.

Lead by Emperor Tetricus, this breakaway empire comprised of the Roman Empire’s northern territories. Aurelian would begin his campaign against Tetricus and his Gallic Empire in the year 274 AD. Yet after a single battle at the battle of Campi Catalaunii, (Châlons-sur-Marne) Tetricus would desert his own army and sue for peace, in which Aurelian would grant the ex-emperor mercy, not only this, but he would even be granted a governership. Although he would be made to march in Aurelian’s triumph alongside Zenobia in Rome.

One of the other things of notice that Aurelian did was the attempt to popularise the god ‘Invictus Sol‘ (God of the Unconquered Sun), although not an attempt to snub out the old Graeco-Romano pantheon, it was an attempt to bring more religious unity within the empire and hopefully decrease the chances of a fracture.

After these years of constant war, Aurelian could begin his own reign properly. He would reforge the economy using the embers of the rich eastern provinces, alongside several heavy reforms, would be used to fix the economy which had been so battered and bloodied in the Crisis of the Third Century. Aurelian would also begin stamping down on corruption and embezzlement, whilst also fixing the price of bread, adding more items to the dole, and repairing the bed of the Tiber.

Yet for a emperor who had been called, “manu ad ferrum” (iron fist) Aurelian was not one to disappoint, he would once again fight the Raeti and Juthungi in the north. Then in the year 275 AD, began planning for a campaign against the Sassanid Empire to the east, due to them having taken the province of Mesopotamia from the Romans. He would begin moving east, gathering an army. Yet in a minor Thracian town near Byzantium, Aurelian’s private secretary had lied to the emperor on a minor matter. Eros however, feared for his life, and told members of Aurelian’s praetorian guard that the emperor planned to execute them, causing them to murder the emperor to protect themselves.

Epilogue

Aurelian was a great man, for he was the one responsible for the maintaining of a Roman Empire which was very near collapse. He stabilised the empire so that it would survive the Crisis of the Third Century, and restored the empire from the Red Sea, to the empire’s northernmost boundaries in Britannia, and he held those borders, allowing the empire to survive for another 200 years, in the west at least. He was most definitely worthy of his title ‘restitutor orbis

Restorer of the world.

Just an old man from Halicarnassus, who loves history.

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1 thought on “Emperor Aurelian

  1. Thank you very much for such an accurate and fab article about Emperor Aurelian. I, for sure, learnt a lot. Carry on with the good work teaching us all about History. Congrats on the blog and the smartly chosen name for all History lovers!

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